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No. 731:
Wooden Race Tracks

Today, speed comes of age on wooden tracks. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"Boy, she was goin' like 60!" That's what we used to say to each other about speed in the 1930s. Sixty miles an hour -- a mile a minute. We called the nonstop train ran from St. Paul to Chicago "The 400" -- 400 miles in 400 minutes. That was speed.

Yet we'd seen greater speeds by then. A train passed 100 mph in 1893. An automobile passed it in 1906. Airplanes didn't get there until until WW-I.

Automobiles promised speed for everyone, but roads weren't ready for them. I'll never forget the thrill of terror the first time my father, a former WW-I pilot, pushed our old Plymouth over 60. It was on the best road around -- a two-lane tarred highway.

Henry Ford used a frozen lake to reach 91 mph in 1904. The Stanley Brothers drove their steamer 128 mph on the packed sand of Daytona Beach in 1906. Soon after, most states enacted laws against road racing. Speed had become the great American hunger.

Writer Michael Gianturco tells about a lost technology that spoke to that new hunger. It was the wooden race track.

In 1910, a Barnum-like man named Jack Prince sold an investor on the idea of building a wooden speedway at Playa del Rey in California. The famous race-car driver Barney Oldfield immediately did a lap at the amazing speed of 99 miles an hour.

The track was made from thousands of boards, held together by tons of nails. Prince's first design was a one-mile circular bowl with steep sloped sides.

The public cheered as fatalities mounted. Finally, in 1913, a fire destroyed the track. And Damon Runyan wrote, "Playa del Rey burned last night with a great saving of lives."

But the mania had only begun. Wooden race tracks grew like weeds. By the 1920s, curves were banked until they were unsafe at anything under 100 mph.

Then the brick Indianapolis Speedway went into use. It helps put the wooden track in perspective. In 1926, a car lapped a Miami wooden track at 143 mph. The fastest lap that same car could do at Indy was only 112.

By the time I was a child, those fast old wooden tracks had worked their magic. They'd seen us through a phase. We still race at Indy, but now that's only an annual rite of Spring.

Wooden tracks came to an abrupt end with the Depression. Some were burned for firewood. Cars had, at last, become a commonplace part of American life. During the Depression we sobered up and reached childhood's end. Car driving had, at last, come down to the hard clay -- and become grownup business.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gianturco, M., The Infinite Straightaway. Invention & Technology, Fall 1992, pp.34-41.


A 1919 Daytona racing car -- the kind that ran on wooden tracks.
Photo by John Lienhard

A 1919 Daytona racing car -- the kind that ran on wooden tracks.